Transfers on the up

In the past two years, the number of foreign lawyers taking the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test (QLTT) has increased steadily, according to Colin Gillespie, clerk to the QLTT board. The increase to roughly 600 applicants a year has been largely due to new jurisdictions allowed to sit the test, including the US, South Africa and Nigeria.

The QLTT was introduced in 1991 to allow foreign lawyers to qualify as solicitors in England and Wales. “It is a standard exam designed to equate foreign lawyers with the standards that an English lawyer has to reach,” says Gillespie.

The test covers four heads of English law including property, litigation, professional conduct and accounts, and principles of common law and it is administered twice a year.

The largest number of foreign lawyers come from Commonwealth countries, the rest are from a range of nations including, Zimbabwe, the European Community and the US. There are also a number of Irish and Scottish solicitors and some English barristers who take the test in order to practise as solicitors in the UK. The Law Society examines each lawyer's history and determines which heads they must take. Americans, for example, take only the first three, because they have common law experience.

Many lawyers who qualified overseas recognise the importance of gaining experience of practising English law. For example, Stephanie Liston, a telecommunications lawyer at City firm Baker & McKenzie, is a US attorney who qualified in the UK while working at Freshfields. “There is no longer a training requirement for US lawyers who have practised abroad,” she says. “However, it is important to have experience in an English law firm.”

As Liston points out, there are professional and academic reasons for lawyers to gain as much experience as possible in English law before sitting the exam. The QLTT is comprehensive and though the pass rate is around 60 per cent overall, it is significantly lower among those who fly to London to take the test without spending time in the country.

“The ones who have the most difficulty are Central Europeans who don't live and work in the UK,” comments Roger Gregory, QLTT course director at BPP Professional Development. “Those who come over and work for the the big City firms have a higher pass rate.”

Rupert Van Hullen is a German-qualified lawyer currently working at Nabarro Nathanson to gain experience before sitting his exam. He is planning to take a review course but believes “the course is of no value without working in the environment. Otherwise it is like learning the rules of football without playing the game.”

Van Hullen is confident that he will be able to adapt to the language differences in English, but wants to work in English law to understand common law, which often presents problems to Europeans who come from a civil law background. The two legal systems have different approaches to the basic areas of law, including property ownership and land law.

“Property law was quite complicated,” says Greg Davidian, another German-qualified lawyer who completed the QLTT and is now working as International Legal Counsel at Scottish Amicable International. “The concepts were very different from the European system. The whole concept of English property is based on the history of the country.”

Davidian advises foreign lawyers to allow up to a year to prepare for the test and encourages them to do substantial reading before enrolling in a review course. BPP Professional Development is one of a number of institutions, including the College of Law, which have been approved to run preparatory courses for the exams. “It is feasible to pass in one sitting with a serious three-month course of study,” says Gregory.

With the increasing number of foreign firms setting up in London to meet the needs of clients, younger lawyers are increasingly being encouraged to qualify in England by taking the QLTT. “It is particularly important in explaining English law to American clients,” says Bruce Wilson, partner at Washington DC-based Covington and Burling, which has several lawyers about to sit the QLTT.

With an increasing number of jurisdictions able to take the test, the number of dual-qualified lawyers is likely to continue to increase steadily. And QLTT course providers are taking a more active role to market the advantages of dual qualifications for lawyers abroad.

“At present,” says Nick Olley, director of the QLTT at the College of Law, “there are still so few people who know of the test.” But as foreign lawyers realise there are benefits to qualification in England, Olley and other course providers are likely to find more applicants knocking at their doors.